I love meatballs. I think I’ll say that again. I love meatballs.
Every food culture has its meatball. This is my Mexican twist on Sephardic meatballs, which are called albóndigas in Spanish. When I traveled in Mexico I came to know the flavor of serrano chiles and tomato sauce that I combined for this recipe. Serrano chiles have a smoky flavor that add a lot of depth to the sauce when mixed with onion, garlic, oregano and mint. The mint creates a cool contrast to the spice of the chile.
While I would not call this recipe spicy, there is a little kick. I believe that cooks should make a recipe their own, and you can add or take away spice, just as you can use more or less salt. It should be to your taste.
I use real bread instead of bread crumbs for this recipe, which — along with boiling the meatballs in the tomato sauce — creates a superior meatball that is soft and delicious.
These meatballs are best served over steamed white rice. You can make plain rice or cook the rice with a cup of sautéed onion to add a bit more flavor to the dish.
I tend to save this recipe for the weekend or for Shabbat since it has a few more steps than the dishes I typically prepare after work.
Albóndigas: Meatballs in tomato chile sauce
Makes about 24 large meatballs and serves six to eight people
For the sauce:
4 cloves garlic, skin intact
5 serrano chiles, or your favorite chile pepper
¼ cup neutral vegetable oil, like avocado oil
1 cup water
1 ¼ teaspoon sea salt
A very large can of tomatoes, about 6 pounds. I prefer the Cento brand of whole peeled tomatoes but you can use any equivalent of smaller cans. You could also use canned diced tomatoes since they will be blended down into a sauce.
For the meatball mixture:
2 pounds ground beef
1 cup cubed white bead, crust removed (about 4-5 pieces)
¼ cup water
2 teaspoons sea salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
Half of a small onion, finely chopped (about ⅓ cup)
5 Roma tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried mint, or 1 tablespoon of fresh mint, finely chopped
2 large eggs
To prepare the meatballs:
Any kind of white bread can be used for this recipe. I happened to have semolina bread, so I used that instead of white sandwich bread. It can be old but not stale or dry.
Cut the crusts off before cutting into cubes. This will measure about 1 cup if you put it into a measuring cup and press down quickly. The bread will spring back up as you take the pressure of your hand away, and that’s just fine.
Put the bread into a large mixing bowl. Stir in ¼ cup of water and let the bread soak for about 10 minutes.
Chop the onion and the tomatoes. To seed the tomatoes, simply slice in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and dice the flesh that is remaining.
Using the back of a fork, mash the bread and water mixture into a paste. Add the onion, tomato salt and spices into the bowl and mix. I usually let this sit for another 10 minutes while I’m making the sauce, allowing the flavor to really seep into the bread crumb mixture.
Mix in 2 pounds of ground beef by hand. Do not overmix because that will create hard, dense meatballs.
Make a well in the meat mixture and add the eggs. Gently mix the egg into the meat mixture until just combined. The mixture will feel very wet compared to how you usually prepare meatballs or meatloaf. That’s OK — this is part of the secret to how these cook up so perfectly. Form about 24 meatballs, each about the size of a golf ball. I set them on a baking sheet as I’m making them. You can also do this a few hours in advance and refrigerate until it’s time to add them to the sauce.
To prepare the sauce:
Cover a heavy-bottomed skillet with foil — I often just tear a piece of foil, fold it into a square and gently press it over my skillet. This keeps the flavor of the chiles and garlic from seeping into your pan.
Place the 5 whole chiles with stems on, and the unpeeled garlic cloves, onto the foil and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, turning the chiles and garlic several times until the skin is blackened and blistering. You should feel the chiles softening as they blacken.
Turn off the heat and, using tongs, place the garlic and chiles into a small paper lunch bag, fold the top and set aside. (You may want to start chopping and preparing the meatball mixture while the garlic and chiles are cooking.)
After the garlic and chiles have cooled for about 10 minutes, remove them from the paper bag and place them onto a cutting board.
With a sharp knife, cut and peel the skin off the garlic and slice the stems from the chiles. Slice the chiles in half and devein 2 of them so that some seeds will get mixed in with the sauce for a mild heat. If you’re afraid of spice, start the sauce with only deveined chiles. You can set the seeds aside to add in later if you need them. If you know you like very spicy food, you don’t need to devein any of the chiles — just put them whole (without stems) into the mixture.
Using a blender or food processor, mix about 3 batches of canned tomatoes, chiles and garlic until well blended. You will see small, charred pieces from the skins, which is normal.
Add ¼ cup of oil to a heavy-bottomed pot like a Dutch oven or soup pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
Add the tomato sauce mixture and sauté in the oil for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add in the water and salt and bring to a gentle boil.
Gently drop in the meatballs one at a time, using a wooden spoon to help find a spot to drop them. The meatballs need to be fully immersed into the sauce in order to cook correctly. If for any reason the sauce is not covering them, add a little bit of water until they are covered.
After adding all of the meatballs, you may need to let them cook for a few more minutes over medium heat until the sauce is bubbling up. At this point, turn the flame to low and cover the meatballs.
Cook for 25 minutes, uncovering once and gently stirring to make sure that nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot.
After 25 minutes, remove the lid and continue to simmer for 15-20 minutes uncovered, allowing the sauce to thicken, creating more flavor and a better consistency.
To prepare the rice:
You can make plain rice the traditional way. I typically steam rice, but for this dish I sauté 1 cup of finely chopped onion in 2 tablespoons of avocado or a neutral vegetable oil over medium heat for 5 minutes before adding 1 ½ cups of white rice.
Stir the rice into the oil and onion mixture and simmer for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, before adding 3 cups of boiling water. I have found adding a few sprigs of parsley or cilantro at this point really adds to the overall flavor.
Bring to a boil, cover, turn the heat down to low and simmer for 15 minutes.
Remove the lid, stir, and continue to cook uncovered on low for another 5 minutes.
If you added parsley or cilantro sprigs, remove the stems before serving.
Ladle the meatballs and sauce over the rice and serve. Enjoy! PJC
Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.